In the midst of the nation's economic crisis, complete with its trillion dollar bailout plans of various types, comes the news that American International Group (AIG)--recent recipient of over $170 billion in federal bailout funds--will go ahead with plans to pay a group of top executives $100 million in "retention" pay.
Now get this: The group of AIG executives in line for these bonus payments work in the very division or group that is responsible for most of the company's financial woes, failures that now threaten the entire economy.
I've tried to be reasonable on this latest revelation from AIG.
I've read the reports in The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times. I've listened to the arguments from company leaders that AIG may open itself to legal battles if it doesn't go ahead and pay previously agreed upon incentives and bonuses. I've even tried to imagine how this particular group of executives could be considered "essential" to helping AIG through the "work out" process for failed and extremely complicated investment instruments known as "derivatives." These were the very same employees who created the problem in the first place!
I've tried, but I'm far, far from convinced. In my worldview these employees should be thanking their lucky stars that they still have a job of any kind. Bonuses? Surely they jest!
But much more significant for me, and continually swirling in the background noise of the current national atmosphere, are the voices of those who for decades now have been harshly, unfairly, ignorantly and mercilessly critical of the poor in this nation who have turned to us as a nation for a "hand up" out of the continual and very real "Depression" that has ravaged their families during these same decades.
The urban poor seek and have sought only an equal opportunity--not wealth, not a fortune, not wild, unjustified bonus pay for terrible work product. No, just access to adequate, nutritional food. An opportunity to receive the work training necessary to earn a livable wage. An open door for their children to get a good education that might lead them to university work. Decent health care. Housing that is affordable and fit for human habitation. Fairness in criminal courts and a voice before the civil bench. The list reads like a commentary on the ordinary stuff of American life. No luxury, just fair, decent and hopeful.
I've listened to extreme critics of the poor speak of these fellow Americans with harshness, judgment, hatred, ridicule, and disdain. Often the criticism has been couched in racist terms and categories.
Reality for the poor is so terribly different than these ill-informed critics imagine.
The sort of fraud, mismanagement and disgrace that we've observed on Wall Street since last fall simply does not occur among the poor and those in our government groups who attempt to assist them.
Have you ever tried to fill out an application for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Department of Agriculture's Food Stamp program? Not an easy task.
Or, how about a Medicaid or Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) application? Possibly gone through the process to receive Supplemental Security Income to help make it through life with some disabling medical condition?
Ever try to get a unit of public housing? How about a housing choice voucher for your family? The waiting lists drag applicants out for years and years!
Or, maybe you've worked through a Pell Grant doucment as you tried to help your child get into college and past all of the financial documentation that must be supplied even when you have so little money for which to account!
I've said it before, but it needs to be said again: if Wall Street were regulated like the programs designed to assist and lift the poor, the nation would not be facing the current financial meltdown. The poor in this country face needless and undue complications and clearly "engineered" difficulty to gain the basics for life from the public sector.
The scope and scale of any fraud that occurs in the world of social services and poverty programming pales in comparison to the cost and size of the institutionalized fraud that has been going on in the for-profit sector for decades. Now, we pay the tab for the criminal, unethical and immoral acts of the nation's new generation robber barons.
No, enough already of the hateful and unjust criticism of the poor who simply seek a better shot at a better life. No more of the unsubstantiated accusations of "fraud" and theft by the poor who "rip off the system."
The time has come to open our eyes to the real fraud, the actual abuse. As is usually the case, the actual "rip off" occurs thanks to the shenanigans orchestrated by the powerful, the well-to-do, the greedy, the wise-guys, the well-connected and the rich.
No surprises here. Just time for a reminder.
The headlines today turn our attention to the real problems we face. Their source will not be discovered among the poor, I can assure you of that. So, just save your breath if you're tempted to blame them.
It's time we woke up. It's time we spoke up and stood up for those who struggle with poverty, and not for those who've caused so much of it. It is far past time for us to engage in the work of seeking a better life for our neighbors at the bottom of this economy.
"Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy." Proverbs 31:9